The critical power model is one of the most useful tools for optimising race performance, but why does it work? The answer lies in the connection between the depletion of energy reserves and the accumulation of waste products.
A useful overview of the critical power model can be found in a paper by Clarke and Skiba. It applies well to cycling, where power can be measured directly, and to other sports were velocity can play the role of power. Critical power (CP) is the maximum power that an athlete can sustain for a long time without suffering fatigue. This measure of performance is closely related to other threshold values, including lactate threshold, gas exchange threshold, V̇O2max and functional threshold power (FTP). An advantage of CP is that it is a directly related to performance and can be measured outside a laboratory.
The model is based on empirical observations of how long athletes can sustain levels of power, P, in excess of their personal CP. The time to exhaustion tends to be inversely proportional to the extent that P exceeds CP. This can be described by a simple formula, where excess power multiplied by time to exhaustion, t, is a constant, known as W’ (read as “W-prime”) or anaerobic power capacity.
Physics tells us that power multiplied by time is work (or energy). So the model suggests that there is a fixed reserve of energy that is available for use when we exceed our CP. For a typical athlete, this reserve is in the order of 20 to 30 kilojoules.
Knowing your personal CP and W’ is incredibly useful
Suppose you have a CP of 250W and a W’ of 21.6kJ. You are hoping to complete a 10 mile TT in 24 minutes. This means you can afford to deplete your W’ by 0.9kJ per minute, which equates to 900J in 60 seconds or a rate of 15W. Therefore your target power should be 15W above CP, i.e. 265W. By holding that power your W’ balance would slowly fall to zero over 24 minutes.
Theoretically, you could burn through your entire W’ by sprinting at 1250W for 21.6 seconds.
While it may be possible to maintain constant power on a flat TT or on a steady climb, most race situations involve continual changes of speed. A second aspect of the critical power model is that W’ is slowly replenished as soon as your power drops below CP. The rate of replenishment varies between individuals, but it has a half-time of the order of 3.5 minutes, on gentle recovery.
This means that in a race situation, W’ can recover after an initial drop. By hiding in the peloton and drafting behind other riders, your W’ can accumulate sufficiently to mount a blistering attack, of precisely known power and duration. The chart above, generated in Golden Cheetah, shows the variation of my W’ balance during a criterium race, where I aimed to hit zero in the final sprint. You can even download an app onto your Garmin headset that measures W’ in real time. It is great for criterium racing, but becomes less accurate in longer races if you fail to take on fuel at the recommended rate.
Although I am completely convinced that the critical power model works very well in race situations, I have always had a problem with the idea that W’ is some kind of magical energy reserve that only becomes available when my power exceeds CP. Is there a special biological label that says this glycogen is reserved only for use of when power exceeds CP?
One possible answer is that energy is produced largely by the aerobic system up to CP, but above that level, the anaerobic system has to kick in to produce additional power, hence the name anaerobic work capacity. That sounds reasonable, but the aerobic system burns a mix of two fuels, fat and glucose, while the anaerobic system burns only glucose. The glucose is derived from carbohydrates, stored in the liver and muscles in the form of glycogen. But it is all the same glucose, whether it is used aerobically or anaerobically. The critical power model seems to imply that there is a special reserve of glucose that is held back for anaerobic use. How can this be?
The really significant difference between the two energy systems is that the byproducts of aerobic metabolism are water and exhaled CO2, whereas anaerobic glycolysis produces lactic acid, which dissociates into H+ ions and lactate. Note that two H+ ions are produced from every glucose molecule. The lactate can be used as a fuel, but the accumulation of H+ ions presents a problem, by reducing the pH in the cells and making the blood more acidic. It is the H+ ions rather than the lactate that causes the burning sensation in the muscles.
The body is well equipped to deal with a drop in pH in the blood, in order to prevent the acidity from causing essential proteins to denature. Homeostasis is maintained by buffering agents, such as zwitterions, that mop up the H+ ions. However, if you keep producing more H+ ions by furiously burning glucose anaerobically, the cell environment become increasing hostile, with decreasing levels of intramuscular phosphocreatine and rising inorganic phosphate. The muscles eventually shut down because they simply can’t absorb the oxygen required to maintain the flux of ATP. There is also a theory that a “central governor” in the brain forces you to stop before too much damage ensues.
You don’t “run out of energy”; your muscles drown in their own waste products
It is acknowledged that the magnitude of the W′ might also be attributed to the accumulation of fatigue-related metabolites, such as H+ and Pi and extracellular K+.Jones et al
If you reach the point of exhaustion due to an accumulation of deleterious waste products in the muscles, why do we talk about running out of energy? And what does this have to do with W’?
Firstly note that CP represents the maximum rate of aerobic exertion, at which the body is able to maintain steady state. Oxygen, inhaled by the lungs, is transported to the muscles and the CO2 byproduct is exhaled. Note that the CO2 causes some acidity in the blood, but this is comfortably managed by the buffering agents.
The connection between H+ ions and energy is evident in the following simple chemical formula for anaerobic glycolysis. Each glucose molecule produces two lactate ions and two H+ ions, plus energy.
C6H12O6 → 2 CH3COCO−2 + 2 H+ + Energy
This means that the number of H+ ions is directly proportional to energy. A W’ of 21.6kJ equates to a precise number of excess H+ ions being produced aerobically. If you maintain power above CP, the H+ ions accumulate, until the muscles stop working.
If you reduce power below CP, you do not accumulate a magic store of additional energy stores. What really happens is that your buffering systems slowly reduce the accumulated H+ ions and other waste products. This means you are able to accommodate addition H+ ions next time you exceed CP and the number of H+ ions equates to the generation a specific amount of energy that can be conveniently labeled W’.
W’ or anaerobic work capacity acts as a convenient, physically meaningful and measurable proxy for the total accumulated H+ ions and other waste products that your muscles can accommodate before exhaustion is reached. When racing, as in life, is always a good idea to save energy and reduce waste.
Overview : Rationale and resources for teaching the mathematical modeling of athletic training and performance, David C. Clarke and Philip F. Skiba
Detailed analysis: Critical Power: Implications for Determination of V˙O2max and Exercise Tolerance, Andrew Jones et al
Implementation: W’bal its implementation and optimisation, Mark Liversedge